Image by Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff US posted to Flickr.com under CC license.
In the game of Chinese Communist Party discourse, words matter. They are used by the leadership to signal power and priorities, and by subordinates to signal loyalty and compliance. Though it is never quite a uniform and straightforward reflection of the Party’s will, the flagship People’s Daily newspaper can be seen as an indicator of how the language game of politics is playing out.
Two small signals were sent out on the front page of the People’s Daily yesterday and today, through the inclusion in headlines of the phrase “Xi Jinping Economic Thought” (习近平经济思想), the first headline references in the key arena of economic decision-making to Xi’s so-called banner phrase, or qizhiyu (旗帜语), the long-winded “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想).
On yesterday’s front page, an article in the bottom-left corner, structured around the Chinese character for “beauty” (美), included “Xi Jinping Economic Thought” in the subhead. But we can also note that the article is advertised as part of a series, labeled as the first of several “reviews” of Xi’s economic governing concept.
Not surprisingly, then, the same basic layout is repeated on the front page of the People’s Daily today. But this time the article, the second in the series, is moved up from the corner, given slightly more prominence even than yesterday.
Though these headline appearances may also have something to do with the upcoming annual Central Economic Work Conference (中央经济工作会议), there can be little doubt that they are important steps toward the formal introduction of the potent “Xi Thought” — putting Xi on par with Mao.
As CMP has noted repeatedly, the shortening of Xi’s banner phrase to the far more potent “Xi Jinping Thought” (习近平思想) is an important step to watch for in the run-up to next year’s 20th National Congress of the CCP. While the phrase “Xi Jinping Thought” has been used regularly outside China to refer to the leader’s legacy set of governing ideas (here it is in the headline of an article by Kevin Rudd in the Wall Street Journal), it is crucial to understand that this shortening has not actually been achieved in Chinese.
The change, which would formally put Xi’s banner term on a level with that of Mao Zedong, is a step that is surely taken seriously within the CCP, and which cannot be taken lightly – seeing as it might be perceived as a discursive power-grab, a sign of cult-of-personality ambitions. So what we have seen in recent months, and in fits and starts since the 19th National Congress back in the fall of 2017, is the shortening first of various permutations of Xi’s banner term as it is applied to different policy areas. Two of the most frequently-used permutations have been those for the legal system and for foreign policy, which are “Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law” (习近平法治思想) and “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想). The first of these has appeared previously in headlines in the People’s Daily, the latest instance having been on November 27, 2021. In the vast majority of cases, however, Xi’s full banner term appears in headlines in the paper, despite its inconvenient length.
Another shortened form of Xi’s banner has been applied to environmental policy, “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” (习近平生态文明思想). This phrase appears also in a headline in the People’s Daily today, though on page 13.